In my late teens I spent a few months working in a book warehouse, saving up to go away on another travelling adventure. I wasn’t interested in much else at that age, other than books, so compared to some other mind numbing temporary jobs I had grafted away at in the early-mid 90’s, it wasn’t too bad.
Also, any damaged books we were able to keep, which made it even better. The correlation between books with damaged covers and ones that I wanted to read was uncanny.
I remember picking up (and still have) my first copy of the Dao De Jing. It has a drawing of an old man with a long flowing beard on the front, and sounded exotic… of course I wanted to read it. Lo and behold it had a damaged cover. I took that as a sign that the Dao was speaking to me and I pocketed it for later reading.
The 81 chapters, attributed to Laozi, are essentially a guide to living a harmonious life and dates back to the 6th Century BCE. It has been translated as, “Classic of the Way of Power”, “The Way of Integrity”, “The Book of the Way”. Laozi (also seen written as Lao Tzu) means Old Man or Old Master. It is uncertain if he actually existed or whether the book is a collection of ancient wisdom and teachings.
One of the most oft-quoted verses begins, “Those who know don’t talk. Those who talk don’t know”. Yet despite this apparent self criticism, the 81 chapters are as relevant now in many respects as they were back in 6th Century BCE China.
At times it is rather unfathomable and takes a lifetime of reflection to unravel the depth of wisdom and thought (“The Dao that can be named is not the eternal Dao”). Yet at the same time is beautifully insightful and profound.
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
(From Chapter 67)
Simplicity, Patience, Compassion
I write this in a week where we are in Corona-lockdown in the UK, and the President of the USA is seemingly trying to lock himself in the White House. The world seems a little bonkers at the moment.
I sometimes think to myself how it has come about that from a speck of matter smaller than the point of a needle, we’ve found ourselves in a possibly infinite and expanding universe as conscious beings made up of atoms from exploding stars.
Just think about how utterly mind-bogglingly unfathomable that is for a moment. We should ponder this more often when beset with our small minded problems.
I don’t know it if it has happened for a reason, whether we are a cosmic fluke, or just a statistical inevitability of infinity but whatever it is, is this REALLY the best we can do? We’re a conscious witness to the miraculous, yet as a species we behave like spoilt children ungrateful for the most amazing gift of almost unlimited potential.
When I’m exasperated with the world, I often turn to the Dao De Jing. It in turn often has the answer that I’m needing at that particular time.
Flicking through my intentionally earmarked copy yesterday and the above verse reached out to me and grabbed me with its stunning simplicity… “I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion”.
I have always found that training in a martial art to be the easiest thing ever. The formula is a no-brainer: I train + I apply corrections = I get better. Fundamentally it doesn’t need to get anymore complicated than that.
However, if I’m working on a move, combination, or a form that seems tricky, or I’m just not ‘getting it’, I break it down into more digestible bite-sized chunks that are easier to process. Sure, it may take longer to learn certain things but what is worth learning that doesn’t take time? I can’t think of much…
When I’m feeling generally overwhelmed I have to remind myself to take a similar reductionist approach of simplification. When faced with anything that I might find stressful I try not to fight against the waves of concern and worry but reduce the waves to discrete particles that can be focused on one at a time.
As a tai chi move can be broken down and digested more easily, each problem is then reduced significantly – possibly to the point where it’s not a problem anymore if you focus on the individual element in front of you at that particular time, and not the huge wave that you felt was about to come crashing down upon you.
The more we ruminate on a problem or an issue, the bigger it can become in our minds. When teaching a form or a move, I very often see a student learn quickly and perform it well. Then I may return to them a few minutes later and they are now struggling with it. Often the problem is in the mind. Whereas initially they were doing and not thinking, the reverse is now happening. It is a natural part of the learning process but if you catch yourself doing it, try to focus on ‘the doing’ and take it one step at a time.
I was never very patient as a child and teenager. My mum would have a strategy where she’d advise me to: “Count to 10 and say fish hooks” before losing my temper. I don’t recall ever getting to 10 but I did often manage to use a phrase that began with the same letter as “fish hooks”, so there was a modicum of success I guess.
It actually wasn’t until I started seriously training in martial arts that I became a little more patient (although flat-packed furniture still tests me!).
It is understandably very easy, and I fell into this myself, to want to learn a lot very quickly. We’re well into an age where whatever we want is available at the click of a few buttons and delivered to our doorstep the next day.
I always consider tai chi to be an antidote to what for want of a better phrase you could refer to as a ‘modern lifestyle’.
You could learn it quickly if you were adept at picking up movements, dancers and gymnasts in particular could memorise the postures at record speed…. but it would not be tai chi, it would be a dance or a gymnastics routine.
There is an essence to tai chi which if you are patient and dedicated enough, is revealed to you after years of training. Personally, I think in decades when it comes to my own development in the art. Not to say you won’t feel incredible benefits after quite a short period of regular training but for those who have the patience and stay with it, the benefits will be a hundredfold or more!
Likewise, learning too many forms can be counter-productive. Better to deeply understand a few, than to be a ‘forms collector’. The forms are a manifestation of the principles of the style, you can learn them until the cows come home but if you don’t take the time to let them seep into your bones, they will remain a form of external exercise.
Attaining the deeper levels of understanding takes time and effort… and a lot of patience! More immediate hobbies, pleasures, and distractions can seem desirable instead. Who wants to go to class on a rainy January evening when you’re tired and hungry after a hard day at work? Who wants to spend years and years being corrected and searching for something ephemeral in your practice to really feel like you ‘get it’?
I always think that it takes a special type of person to stick with tai chi, not everyone can do it. Those who do will be rewarded with the forging of an ability to play the long game, to appreciate slow and steady progress. Most importantly you will develop patience with yourself which will cascade beyond the realms of your training.
Many people come to martial arts because they want to learn how to protect themselves. Little do they realise at the start that the biggest enemy they face is very often themselves. Whether it’s too lofty expectations at the beginning, or mental programming that goes back decades, we can often give ourselves a really hard time if we don’t think we learn quickly or well enough. Whilst I’m all for pushing ourselves in pursuit of improving, it shouldn’t come at the cost of a little self-compassion when things are not going our way.
You may feel like you regress in your practice from time to time, this is normal. However, it’s often not true. As long as you are putting in the time and effort, you are progressing. The path of progress is never linear, you’ll peak, plateau and maybe even dip a bit, but keep on going and you’ll continue to improve.
You might also feel that other people are so far ahead of you / learning quicker than you. This is only counter productive to your own progress. Both things might be true but neither of them matter, everyone progresses in their own time, everyone has their own unique gifts as well as their limitations. Tai chi is a very personal endeavour, you’re not trying to compete with anyone else, the only person that you are trying to be better than tomorrow is yourself today.
With our tai chi practice we are trying to create balance, that includes a balance between our determination to learn more and improve and the self criticism when it doesn’t happen as quickly or as easily as we like. Self compassion is actually very important for our progress for those days when it’s not quite going as we would like, tempered with a steely determination to forge ahead and make the improvements.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
As the verse concludes, by finding compassion towards yourself, you find an ease within yourself and place within the world. By practicing this within tai chi, you can radiate out and affect other areas of your life.
I was probably quite bad at setting limits for myself at earlier stages in my life but quite often I’d say they were born out of a fear of failure and self criticism. Setting out on a path to learn a martial art to a high level is opening yourself up to a lifetime of failure. It’s a humbling experience, taking repeated corrections, putting yourself through a daily slog to try to move more efficiently, relax more, become more flexible and stronger, more skilled… always realising that you have more to learn and what you are doing now maybe isn’t quite right but if you just keep on going with enough diligent practice, one day soon you’ll “get it”.
It’s a path beset with pitfalls, you come up against yourself time and time again but what are you going to do? Are you going to be beaten by yourself and retreat, or are you going to get over one hurdle and sprint joyously to the next one (or possibly just smash straight into it!)!?
Now I don’t mind failure. At the start of this pandemic I was asked what I would do if my whole business went broke and I didn’t have anything left. I kind of thought it was a stupid question as the only possible answer is, “start again”.
There’s no point beating yourself up about failing, or not getting something right, or not being as good as you think you could be….. Mostly because we’re all failing, not getting something right and not as good as we could be in some way… we’re human! But what is great about being human is that we have compassion, and that compassion should start with protecting ourselves. I can’t think of a much better application of self defence than that.
Simplicity, Patience, Compassion
Perhaps it’s not a bad mantra to remind ourselves of in the times we find ourselves living in. Winter time in Chinese medicine is the most Yin of seasons, it is for retreating, contemplation, quietness, and focus. It seems to me that after the year we have all experienced, reflecting on how we can simplify, become more patient, and compassionate might be a good way to spend our time.